Ocean City —
Copious signs throughout Thomas Jewelers notify customers that the Asbury Avenue shop, which has been a mainstay in Ocean City for 60 years, is going out of business.
Within glass display cases are watches, rings, necklaces, pendants, earrings, bracelets and custom jewelry.
Yet despite the signs announcing deep discounts in the liquidated inventory, there’s a sense of loss, at least for Rich Hoch.
R. Thomas Cake and his wife Maryann founded the jewelry store in March 1958. Hoch has owned Thomas Jewelers since July 1987, and continued the tradition of a full-service jewelers.
In addition to selling jewelry, diamonds and gemstones, the shop performs in-house watch and jewelry repair.
For the last few years, the business has struggled with declining sales, Hoch said. He attributed the sluggish sales to the downturn in the economy and to a number of residents leaving Ocean City.
“We have fewer year-round residents to support. The properties that have been converted to seasonal use really doesn’t do anything for us the remainder of the year,” Hoch said. “Initially, the retail community in this town was not seasonal. It’s become very much seasonal now. If your business structure was to handle it as a year-round business, you can’t do it. We’re at a size when we can’t downsize or change anything where it would be feasible to stay.”
Hoch said he pondered the decision to close during the winter season and decided to begin liquidating inventory this summer. He said the store will close in September.
According to Hoch, the first negative change to Ocean City’s downtown businesses came when Stainton’s Department Store closed in the 1990s. Hoch said the dynamics of Upper Township, Somers Point and Linwood also changed, with more retail opportunities and shops. Customers stayed on the mainland instead of venturing into Ocean City for shopping, Hoch said.
Hoch said not only is the economy in general and the local economy on a downturn, but also the jewelry business is also hurting.
“Jewelry is a luxury item that when folks are tightening up they don’t necessarily need to buy the most expensive or consider the category. We’re feeling it from that, too,” Hoch said.
Hoch added Internet shopping is also taking a bite out of his business, with people shopping for jewelry online.
“Young people don’t think twice about going online and ordering anything from sneakers to jewelry to watches to whatever. They’re not even considering what they’re buying or the shopping experience. It’s just hit and click and off they go,” Hoch said.
Thomas Jewelers offers a complete traditional service business, Hoch said, something missing in many stores; wedding ring fittings, engraving, jewelry and watch repair, custom pieces and designer styles.
“From a service point of view, we’ve always had a very good service business, but in the scope and size of what we were, we needed a lot more than service to sustain us,” Hoch said.
Hoch is working with original jewelry manufacturers, who have provided Thomas Jewelers with inventory to sell at prices slashed from 50 to 60 percent. Unsold items will be sold overseas, Hoch said.
Hoch said the loss of his store is a “black eye to the city.”
“The city is losing a solid business that’s been around for a number of years. I think everyone has a little responsibility on how this works with the retail stores, not just my situation but individual merchants have their deals with hour changes or inventory and the city has their issues with parking,” Hoch said. “It’s a sign of the times and a combination of things that makes it difficult for retailers to stay on a main street.”
What’s next for Hoch? He said he’s like to return to talk radio, a career he had before entering the jewelry business.
“We’ve had all of the emotions. I’ve had women in here crying because they don’t know where they’re going to go for jewelry service. People I’ve built relationships with for 22 years are saddened and shocked,” Hoch said.